troubled times
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Clifton Hall
by Andrew Lee-Hart



Nottingham has turned into a wasteland with empty grey streets and curtained windows, the only movement being the trams that appear every ten minutes; with no passengers and no driver. Even when there is nobody left to see them, they will continue to journey into the city, never late, never early.

And then unbidden, as they always are, come thoughts of Helen; a play fight between two colleagues in the staff room, ending up with her lying on top of me on the carpet as I stroked her bottom through her loose jeans; for a moment the coldness of her flesh, and then the door is pushed open and there is a scream. How many times have I thought of those brief moments; after which nothing was the same?

Visiting my mother was probably not a good idea; self-absorbed and insistent that she was well and her doctors all fools, she accompanied me to the arboretum, a walk round the castle (still in ruins from the last Civil War) and even a day out in Lincoln.  It was as if she had to prove to me that she was healthy or maybe it would be a last chance to look at these places we had once loved to visit.

She looked pale and ill as we walked back down Steep Hill, and once we got on the almost empty train, she fell asleep, which at least meant that I could read without being interrupted. However the carriage stank of decomposing food and urine, which made it hard to concentrate, and after we left Newark Castle, the lights stopped working, so instead I gazed out of the window at the scenery, and wondered if I would be on of the last people to do so.  Surely trains could not continue to run for much longer, even with only a handful still in service, many left the station without any passengers, too nervous of hijackings or being stuck in the middle of nowhere for hours at a time. I woke my mother when we eventually pulled into Nottingham and she staggered off the train and then clutched my arm as we walked through the litter-strewn streets to her flat.


On Friday I left early without a shower or breakfast. I could hear my mother’s radio droning quietly from her bedroom; strictly speaking, and unlike televisions, radios were not officially banned, but it would be foolish to draw attention to the fact that you owned one. In fact they rarely transmitted anything, just the occasional news bulletin or patriotic song at the strangest times, and then they would disappear back into the ether. My mother kept her radio on all the time, so that she would not miss any of these sporadic broadcasts, which meant that in her flat, there was always the faint sound of static.

I shut the door quietly and hurried down the High Street towards the canal. My mother would probably go back to sleep once the radio broadcast had finished, and then it wouldn’t be until at least nine before she realised that I was gone, or so I hoped. I felt guilty but I needed some quiet to think and to plan my next move, in particular whether to stay with my mother or go back to Liverpool where the war was raging harder than it was here.

The sun was hot and there was the sticky smell of pollen and heat, and until I came off the main road, the empty trams sped past me with their clanging of bells, and the artificial voice telling anybody that was interested that “the next stop is University Boulevard”, although the University had closed down six months ago, and the students were long gone.

Since the incident with Helen I had had no job, unfortunately it was Lena, the manager of the library, who caught us; she did not like me, and the fact Helen was married did not help. Anybody else would have ignored it, regarding it none of their business, or at worst given me a quiet talking to, but these were strange times, and I was already on a warning, so to my shock and dismay I was sacked a fortnight later, having in my arrogance decided to not bother with help from my Trade Union.


That was a year ago and I had savings and a bequest from my uncle, so that I was able to stay in Liverpool hoping that I would find another job.  But as time went on and the world began to fall apart, with the Royalists and the Republicans fighting for power and not caring about the anarchy that they unleashed whilst they did so, I realised that I would not find anything else, unless I enlisted to be a soldier. So like the majority of the population I stayed hidden, just venturing out for food, or for air, when the close confinement of my flat became too much.

After the complete chaos of the last six months or so, things had seemed to calm down, in recent weeks. The Royalists appeared to be in the ascendancy and were trying to impose some normality, even in Liverpool and the rest of the North-West. It therefore seemed to be a good idea to venture across the country and see my mother; I had been worried about her health since my father died, and when I managed to telephone her, it was clear that she was getting worse, however much she might deny it. What used to be a three-hour journey, had taken almost twenty-four hours, but once in the East Midlands, things seemed calmer and if you squinted slightly, you could believe that things might return to normal, at least for a moment.


I headed off the main path, where the trams did not intrude, and after walking past a golf club and then crossing a disused railway line, arrived at the canal. Originally I had planned on heading towards the city but on an impulse turned right and headed out towards Derbyshire instead, at least the scenery would be more peaceful, although wherever you went there was always the possibility of coming across something unpleasant.

My mobile phone rang out of the silence, it was my mother, she must have stayed awake after listening to the radio or had heard me leave the house. I could not face talking to her, so I turned the phone off without answering it; I would ring her later, when I was further away and not tempted to turn back. Hopefully she would fall back to sleep.


Helen rang me a week or two after I was sacked.

“I am sorry” she told me; “it was fun, and I wish it had gone further, but I cannot afford to lose my job, or Dave. I know I moan about him, but he is a good man and doesn’t deserve this.”

I listened to her voice for the last time and knew that she was right. My feelings for her were not that profound; it had just been a frolic and I deserved to be punished for it.

“Things are getting strange” she told me, “and it is best I stay close to my family,” and with that she rang off. Fazakerley library closed soon afterwards, and I rapidly lost touch with all of my former colleagues. And yet despite the wrongness of what happened and the triviality of it all, I missed Helen more than anyone else, more than the more serious relationships I had before I met her and more than my closest friends. We had not even been that intimate as colleagues, and our embrace had been a surprise, albeit a pleasant one. But whilst I had forgotten so much, I remembered clearly the feel of her on top of me, her breasts soft against my chest, her lips beginning to explore mine, and then the sound of the door opening.


It was going to be a hot day, already I was sweating and carrying my jacket. In the distance I could see a young woman doing handstands in a field; she was wearing black shorts and a white sports shirt, whilst nearer to me there was an old man walking a small dog. Some distance behind and above them was a hall, large and grey against the green trees and fields that surrounded it.

“It is Clifton Hall, you can get to it through the fields; it will take you about an hour,” said the old man looking at me suspiciously, “it is quite steep to get to, you might be best trying to find a bus, if there are any. Shame the trams are not working yet, they will go straight there.”

“I will walk” I told him.

I saw his dog heading quickly towards the young woman, who was now jogging on the spot.

“Oh God” shouted the man and headed towards the girl, shouting at his pet, who was barking enthusiastically.


As I got closer to the house, it began to change colour and now looked a mellow brown, rather than grey, whilst the windows shone intensely in the sun. By now the old man and his dog were long out of earshot and I imagined that the young woman was jogging along by the canal and I hoped that she would be safe; in Liverpool people rarely ventured out alone, and certainly not young women.

I came to a wood on a hill; at first it was easy to walk through, but as I got in deeper it became more dense and I was overwhelmed by the smells of greenery, and nervously I waited for the sound of shouting and heavily armed men coming through killing all in their path, but nothing happened, there was only the sound of birds and of me pushing my way through the undergrowth. 

Suddenly I emerged from the darkness, and there was Clifton Hall; somehow I had gone round to the back of it, and it rose high up in front of me, unseeing and cold. There were flower beds, a lawn and a low fence, which I easily clambered over. All around me there was a deep silence as if I had come upon a strange new land, bereft of life.

The house looked Eighteenth Century to me, possibly Palladian, with classical columns (Corinthian) and was symmetrical and thus pleasing on the eye. I wasn’t sure if it was open to the public, I didn’t think so because there were blinds over the window and as I walked round there was still no sound anywhere nor the smell of cooking, I imagined it must have been deserted and its owners long gone or dragged away and executed.

As I tried to peer through the windows of the house I wondered if my mother would ever get better; she might claim she was okay, but I could not mistake the tiredness in her eyes even after a short walk or a bus ride into the city.

“I can’t wait until the tram system is up and running” she had told me, “it will make things so much easier.”

But even if the tram did ever accept passengers how come a short trip into the city was too much for her? She who could walk all day, and who had forced my father and me on long treks through the countryside when I was much younger. 


I was tired by this time, and as the grass was dry and I lay down, using my jacket as a pillow, and must have dozed off almost immediately. And then I realised that Helen was lying beside me, her hand loosely touching my waist and she was breathing gently and smiling, and yet I knew at that moment that she was dead. We talked, and she told me that it was all right and that she loved me and forgave me, and we lay there looking into each other’s eyes, and I felt happy for the first time since I could remember. And then she kissed me softly before getting up and walking away. 


There was a man standing at the entrance to the house looking hopefully down the drive, while next to him was a sign, “Clifton Hall. £20 entry fee”.

He looked at me with a shy smile, “ah a visitor”.

I gave him a slight bow; “I didn’t realise it was open to the public.”

He shrugged, “we haven’t had visitors for some time, but yes it is. Come on in.” and I followed him into the hall.


We slowly walked round, stopping every so often to admire a picture or piece of furniture. There was a faint smell of polish and of grass, from an open window somewhere. My guide seemed to have a good knowledge of the place, answering all my questions fully and confidently. There were no helpful signs as there usually are in National Trust houses, and there was nobody else about, just the old man and me. But it was a lovely house, albeit some rooms seemed rather depleted of furniture and clearly had not been cleaned for awhile.

In the dining room I looked up and there was a recent photograph of a man and a woman, and then I realised.

“So you are the owner.”

He bowed slightly, “Lord Middleton at your service.”

“I didn’t realise. Does anybody else lives here?”

“No just me. My wife and son died at the beginning of the war; rebels attacked the house when I was away, and by the time I got back…well their bodies and those of a couple of loyal servants were hanging in the orchard.” He was unable to speak for a moment, “and after I had mourned for them I could not think of anything else to do, so I decided to continue showing people around. A taste of arcadia.” He shrugged wearily, and suddenly looked very old.

He took me into a long picture gallery.

“Have a look at these” he said “and I will make us a drink.”

There were a few gaps where pictures once had been, but there were still plenty of paintings left and I recognised a couple of pictures by Lely and a Gainsborough, which I enjoyed looking at. And then at the far end, there was Helen, lying on a bed, naked and beautiful, with her eyes looking at me, unknowable and dark.

“Oh Helen” I said to her and gazed at her; the bed was covered with a red cover, and her skin glowed white against it, and I realised just how beautiful she was. I was still staring at her when Lord Middleton came back in with a tray.

“I hope you like China tea, and we have some biscuits that aren’t too old.”

He looked at the picture of Helen.

“You like that one? Quite a racy picture but something haunting about it; a local artist I think.  My grandfather was a collector and befriended several artists, he had them round here. I don’t know who the woman is; probably a grandmother by now.”

“It reminds me of somebody” I told him, “in fact she is the last memory before everything changed….perhaps that is why she is so precious.”

“We cling to what we can,” he told me. For Lord Middleton it was his house, for me a beautiful woman who I could not forget and who was not meant for me.

We sat down on what were undoubtedly antique chairs, and I tried my best not to spill tea or drop biscuit crumbs.

“Just think you are probably my last visitor.”

“Oh there are still people about” I told him, “I met an old man today, who told me about this place, and there was a young woman doing exercises in a field.”

“Like a landscape by one of those Dutch painters, with lots of hidden details.”

“I was thinking of Lucas Cranach” I told him, “there is a nude in a gallery in Liverpool by him, or there used to be, and behind her you can just see a small town with the townsfolk getting on with their lives, captured for just a moment.”

He looked at me and we drank our tea in comfortable silence.

I thanked him for the refreshments and the tour, it was only after I had left that I realised that I had not paid him any money, but somehow I did not think he would mind. I also realised that my mother had not telephoned me since I spoke to the old man by the canal, perhaps she had gone back to sleep, I hoped so.


I walked back down through the wood and then there was the field, I hoped that the girl doing her exercises would still be there, but it was empty, so far as I could see, although the overgrown grass and hedges could have hidden a hundred bodies. I reached the towpath and set off towards my mother’s house where I hoped that she would be waiting for me, with food and drink, behind me I could hear a dog barking frantically, but I refused to look back.


Ahead of me I knew that the trams were making their way down empty streets; efficient and unyielding, oblivious to the chaos that surrounded them.



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